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You Need Better Leaders If You Want a Better Deal

The Democrats got a horrible coronavirus bailout deal, and also probably the best deal they could get under present circumstances — the “circumstances” being the leaders of the Democratic Party.

Congress’ $2 trillion bailout bill passed late on Wednesday night. Negotiations were threatened briefly because Republican senators couldn’t possibly deal with the idea that low-wage workers might get a pittance more than they usually make, and in retaliation, Bernie Sanders threatened to hold the bill up if they get their way. In the end, the GOP amendment failed, and the Senate vote was 96-0.

The text of the bill was only published shortly before the vote, but it essentially looks like a turd-flavored layer cake of corporate giveaways, with a garnish half-heartedly tossed to the side for the least-protected and hardest-hit by the crisis: workers and their families, state governments, and small businesses that are tanking left and right.

First, the extremely-hyped direct payments — which were supposed to be two payments (according to the Treasury Department) and were proposed as several ongoing payments in various Democratic proposals — ended up being one $1,200 payment to individuals (and $2,400 for joint filers) making under $75,000 (as of 2018, when the economy was not in freefall), with $500 more for each dependent child. (The payments then start phasing out for people above that income, and stop completely for individuals making over $99,000.) That’s it.

There are better parts. The Democrats got more money for hospitals and state and local governments than were in the Senate GOP’s bills that were voted down twice. The federal government will add $600 per week onto state unemployment benefits for four months. This is what Senate Republicans, including Lindsey Graham, were mad about and even willing to tank the whole bill over: The prospect of workers making a tiny bit more on unemployment. “This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working,” Graham said. To be fair, the man has only been in Congress for 25 years; why should he be expected to know how unemployment insurance works?

Even for Sanders and Warren, who had a lot of big plans for this bailout that have so far gone nowhere (chances are there will be more chances), the aid offered to working people was enough to get them to push it through.

What the rest of the bill didn’t skimp on, and which no one apparently had any problem with except a few Senate progressives and liberals, was corporate welfare. A five-member oversight panel and an inspector general are going to be tasked with overseeing a $500 billion bailout for corporate America, over 80% of which will be used to help capitalize “a $4.25 trillion, with a T, leveraged lending facility at the Federal Reserve,” as David Dayen wrote at the American Prospect. Ask Elizabeth Warren how well a five-member oversight panel and an inspector general worked out the last time we had a massive bailout bill. (Small businesses, on the other hand, get just $300 billion, and might not see assistance until they’re already out of business.)

The bill has already drawn more than a few comparisons with TARP and its aftermath, and not just for the half-assed attempt at oversight. Dayen wrote that the coronavirus stimulus was a “bailout for twelve years of corporate irresponsibility that made these companies so fragile that a few weeks of disruption would destroy them.” Zach Carter, arguing that Democrats should vote the bill down, wrote for HuffPost that the bill “represents a transfer of wealth and power to the super rich from the rest of us, with the support of both political parties,” and predicted that we’re about to “replay this nightmare” of the 2008 crash “with a more frightening cast of demons.”

Carter and Dayen are both right: Even with direct payments, even with unemployment insurance, the bill only serves to reward horrible corporate behavior and further deepen economic inequality at the worst time imaginable. The problem is that it’s difficult to imagine a better deal coming out of a room where one Charles Ellis Schumer is the lead Democratic negotiator.

Schumer (and Nancy Pelosi, presumably) decided in their infinite wisdom that he, not the leader of the chamber in which Democrats have a majority, should take the reins in negotiating with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin over this, although Pelosi was reportedly “consulting closely” with Schumer throughout. Either the way, the House role was thus relegated to offering up a better bill earlier this week, which was then almost immediately revealed to be unserious when Pelosi came out and endorsed the Senate’s plan yesterday morning.

Pelosi has set the House vote for Friday; earlier this week, Democratic leaders reportedly told members that they want it to pass via unanimous consent. “Appreciate for what it does, don’t judge it for what it doesn’t because we have more bills to come,” Pelosi said at her Wednesday press conference. No word on whether or not we can judge that in the bill which sucks ass.

This problem presents itself time and time again for the left, and it hasn’t changed even though there might be a few more of them in Congress than there used to be. Progressives and socialists have two options. The first is winning the power to negotiate with Republicans rather than people who are just as enamored with Wall Street as Mnuchin and the GOP is; this means getting behind a candidate to challenge Schumer for the leadership after November. Right now this is wishful thinking, and also useless given we’re up to our knees in shit right now and don’t have ten months to kick the can down the road.

The second option is to come together to form a brick wall to stop the legislation (and take the lumps from pretty much everyone else, including their leaders and the media, for doing so) until it’s revised to get workers a better deal and hold corporations accountable for what they’ve done and what they’ll do. And who knows: Maybe surfacing some of those cracks in the Democratic coalition is what’s necessary to knock ineffective leaders out of power.

You just have to beat them, one way or another. Until either of those two things happen, the strongest argument for a quick passage of the bill is to get the aid out as quickly as possible, because there’s no scenario here where Chuck Schumer doesn’t get pantsed to some degree. Reassuring, I know.

Screenshot: CSPAN